Back in 2003, The Observer sent five established writers – the paper used the word “great”, but Sebastian Faulks was one of them – to the top five dining rooms in the world, as recently garlanded by Restaurant magazine. It’s a perfect feature, one of the best things done in the name of food by a mainstream British publication. The panel is laughably lacking in diversity by today’s standards – four of the five writers are male; all are white – but there is a fascinating range to the perspectives brought all the same, from a chippy Irvine Welsh moping about “Margaret Thatcher's best milk-snatching efforts” as he is conveyed by limo to The French Laundry (he savours the irony as much as he does the food); to Faulks, snootier than any critic, describing non-vintage Louis Roederer as a “dour” choice of house champagne at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. It’s a fun time capsule, with a hint of the plus-ça-changes to boot: fine dining then, as now, is revealed to be cosmically up its own arse, even if, these days, it’s the chef who does the smoking (of butter, of water, of meat), rather than the customer lighting up a Parliament between courses.
I like Welsh’s piece a lot, but the best of the five is Howard Jacobson’s, a typically mordant mix of clear-eyed observation and jet-black comedy: Michelin star presentation reminds him of “the battle of Austerlitz viewed through the wrong end of a telescope, all charred remains and choking herbage”; lamb is “obscenely pink, two stumps of nude baby flesh served with pampered young vegetables which make you think more of the nursery than you might wish”; champagne is served “from an ice urn big enough for two small children to drown in”. I don’t find it especially surprising that I like Jacobson’s best – of the five, I like his books best, too. But what to me is extraordinary – given the murderers’ row of talent assembled – is how bad so much of the rest of the writing is.
It turns out it is hard to write a good restaurant review – properly hard. Like someone pondering the menu at StreetXO, you can go wrong in so many ways. Mess up, fail to wear your learning lightly, and you sound like a wanker (Faulks: “I would probably have gone further up the Gironde estuary, though in fact I am not convinced that silky Bordeaux is the right thing to drink with very rich food”). Mess up, descend into cliché, and you sound like a hack (we might give Welsh a free pass on his probably-ironic use of "eaterie"; it is hard to let Peter Carey off for his hand-wringing over foam, which as a target of exasperated vitriol was passé even in 2003). Mess up, try and fail to express the familiar in entertaining, novel terms, and you just sound like a Dahmerish creep (Faulks again, on the dangers of gummy overly reduced sauce, talks about "labial self-adhesion" – more like Boaksong, amiright?). Mess up, wilfully misunderstand a restaurant’s raison d’être, and you sound like one of those people who crop up in the Graun’s own comments section under every Marina O’Loughlin review, saying 30 quid for a bottle of wine is a fucking outrage when you can get it for a tenner in the shops (Rachel Cooke doesn’t fare well in this regard, when she raises something fascinating in her exclamation “But food is supposed to taste nice!”, but proceeds to use it as a stick with which to beat ElBulli, rather than as a key to unlock it).
Anyway. The main reason I went back to the feature in the first place was the gulf that tragically opened at The Sunday Times in December, and the not-especially-riveting Hunger Games that has played out since in the pages of its magazine. Of the possible candidates that we’ve swiped through like a horny teenager on Tinder, I quite liked David Baddiel – though his use of “eaterie” was surely not ironic – but it’s worrying that that’s the most fulsome endorsement I can give. Replacing AA Gill is question of more than finding someone who’ll be OK. The on-dit suggests they’re looking for A Name (AA Name?), which fills me with fear, since it risks exposing us to everything that was bad about the Observer experiment, Faulks’ and Cooke’s pieces in particular.
Give the gig to someone unwilling to question the idea of food, and you get Cooke's cheap shots at “a collection of deluded sybarites who would rather chop and sauté their own fingers than admit to bewilderment or distaste”; pure “nose-amputating cynicism before experience”, as diagnosed by Gill himself in his own ElBulli review. Give the gig to someone who cares more about self-aggrandisement than the nuts and bolts of the job and you end up with convoluted tripe like this:
The cold foie gras was somehow light, yet still powerful in taste; the truffle cream was a sensation and as for the raw deer - I was just wrong about that. It turns out that I do like raw deer. This fantastic, in both senses, dish came with a glass of sweetish Pinot Gris, which would have been perfect had it been colder.
Clearly, Faulks is not a front-runner. But, Jacobson aside, I can’t think of many people who could do the job properly, in a manner that doesn’t dump all over their predecessor’s legacy. I’m utterly delighted I am not the editor who has to make the call. Nevertheless I’d urge caution with the Big Name hunting. It’s easy to forget – because he was so good, for so long – that before he was AA he was just plain Adrian. The brilliant food critic became the name, not the other way round.